The Day After for the American Jewish Community

Someday, hopefully soon, maybe not so soon, this war will be over. Even President Biden and Vice President Harris have—though wanly and unconvincingly—called for a temporary cease fire. The question that the political pundits have been worrying about is “the day after.” What will happen in Gaza the day after the war ends? Who will be in charge? Who will supply food and water and housing? Who will control the borders and internal security? Will Hamas still be a political force? These are all important questions, and it seems that the Netanyahu government is being criminally negligent in ignoring those questions or deflecting them. However, there is a question that the American Jewish community must face which is equally important. What happens on the day after the war in Jewish communities in North America?

The brutal Hamas attack on October 7 ripped through the American Jewish community and left an open gash. Almost everybody knows somebody or knows somebody who knows somebody who was kidnapped or killed or displaced or was in the IDF.  There were understandable and appropriate feelings of horror and empathy and anger. The Jewish community did what it does best. It started organizing relief. Sending money and/or equipment—for both civilians and the military. At the same time as the major organizations who had led the demonstrations to protect democracy in Israel (Brothers in Arms/Ahim lanesheq especially) turned to bringing aid and food to those in the communities around Gaza in the absence of an appropriate or timely Israeli government response, the American Jewish community began organizing their response. The latter included raising money to support the communities that had been directly impacted, and also money for individual IDF units. There were fundraisers for body armor, for drones, and other military equipment. Meanwhile the public expressions of horror and solidarity went into overdrive. All the official, unofficial, and self-appointed spokespeople rushed to any available microphone to declare that the Jewish community stood with Israel and with Israel’s right of self-defense.

All this was understandable, some of it laudable (help with resettling the dispossessed, food aid), some of it raising questions (where were the billions of dollars in military aid if local communities had to GoFundMe body armor for soldiers they knew?). However, soon after the bombing started it was clear that the Israeli government through the IDF was intent on inflicting massive damage to the residents and the infrastructure of Gaza. The drumbeat of fear and vengeance that was echoed and amplified by the major Jewish organizations in the US, and by most politicians from the president on down, drowned out the cries of suffering and pain of Palestinians in Gaza who were being killed at an extraordinary rate.

This was the situation during the first month of the war. We are now into the fifth month of the war. Over thirty thousand Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, most of them civilians, a third of them children. The official Jewish community has not moved off the dime of placing all the blame for all the killing on Hamas and the Palestinians more generally. There are very few voices in so-called “mainstream” Jewish institutions who oppose the Netanyahu policy of total war. Even when some on the left in Israel are calling for an immediate cease-fire, this demand is articulated in the United States only by groups disavowed by institutional Judaism such as IfNotNow, Jewish Voice for Peace, and to some extent T’ruah.

This, however, leads to the problem that the Jewish community will face on the day after.

I have attended and have been a speaker at several If Not Now protests to demand a cease fire, and a few Jewish Voice for Peace protests. Most of the attendees of these protest are young Jews in their twenties and thirties, though there are some older folks. (To be clear, these protests have tens to hundreds of people, mainly Jews.) Whenever I speak I identify myself as a Conservative Rabbi who teaches at the Ziegler School, a Conservative rabbinical school. Without fail, people approach me afterwards and either express their amazement that somebody in the Conservative movement is speaking out for a cease-fire, or tell me how alienated they have become from their Jewish communities since October 7.

There is a resurgence of Jewish activism since October 7. Jews who have been mobilized by a deep understanding that one definition of being a Jew is being merciful/rahman. Young Jews who have awakened from the deep sleep of indifference or rote Zionism to understand that the future of Israelis and Palestinians is bound together; that Jewish pain is no more or less worthy of empathy than Palestinian pain.

On the day after these young, passionate, committed Jews will not find a home in the synagogues who decided to sing Hatikvah after every service as if it were a political rally. They will still be alienated by the organized community who turned out to a pro-war rally where Pastor Hagee of Christians United for Israel, who has made several antisemitic comments in the past, spoke from the stage, but no rabbis were invited to do the same.

Most tragically, on the day after, the leaders of these organizations, the rabbis of these synagogues, will have to look at themselves in the mirror and see the tens of thousands of dead Palestinians and ask themselves—did I do anything to try to stop this? And the sad truth will be that no, they didn’t. Then they will have to face the young, passionate, committed Jews who do not want to enter their buildings and realize that they have nothing to offer them. Again.

This can change, though the change will not be easy. Change will be brought about by listening to the non and anti Zionist voices of our twenty and thirty somethings. Change will come by not demanding a Zionist purity test at interviews when hiring a rabbi. Change will come about by the Jewish community not allowing itself to be led around by the nose by a Prime Minister whose main political agenda is to stay out of jail.

In short, the Jewish community is nowhere near ready for the day after.

 (Photo: Sue Dorfman/IfNotNow/X)

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